I was sitting in the dorm lounge, taking in my surroundings: a hundred chattering strangers who were all my age, juniors and seniors in high school. I overheard a white girl next to me say, “Wow, there are a lot of Asians. It’s like Chinatown here.”
…Okay. Sure, we were at a humanities summer institute at Stanford, and there were indeed a lot of Asians. You would think that any person of color living in the states would be accustomed to some casual racism—it’s a fact of life. A little comment like that shouldn’t have surprised me, or made me feel so uncomfortable. But that little comment meant something much more than its face worth.
When I heard that girl’s comment, I just looked away quickly. I felt a disconcerting mixture of irritation and vulnerability, a lump in my throat and a loss for words. The feeling was all too familiar. I knew what she said was racist, but I didn’t know why it was racist. Someone could even argue that it was just an innocent observation!
As I went on through the summer course, which was ironically on racial identity in America, I kept the offhand comment made by a stranger tucked in the back of my head. I became hyper-aware of the extremely consequential social construct called race. I tried to keep my mind open and answer this question myself: exactly why was the girl’s comment racist?
America is a vastly diverse country, something that it claims to be proud of. However, a centuries-old idea still exists here: only a white person can truly be a “real” American. Everyone else is an immigrant and/or a minority, never completely American.
People of color, especially Asian Americans, are constantly being omitted from the American imagination. This default white American idea is clear in every minority’s experience, from the “no, where are you really from?” to the “are you here, ya know, legally?”
That girl’s immediate connection of “Asians” to “Chinatown” exemplifies this white American idea. She did not realize that Asian people could also just be normal Americans; she thought that Asians only belonged in a segregated and clearly labeled area—Chinatown. There is no analogy that I can use to explain this because a reverse situation that adversely affects white Americans simply doesn’t exist. So I’ll put it simply: Asian Americans are Americans. We don’t all live in Chinatown. And not all of us are Chinese; there are 48 countries in Asia, actually. Groundbreaking concepts, I know.
The harmful misconception of the white American identity affects all of those who are excluded from the traditional American image. The problem goes beyond under-representation for people of color; it has serious, tangible consequences. When minorities are seen as an “other” or a separate group, they can be denied the social and even legal rights promised to Americans.
Japanese Americans were forced out of their own homes into internment camps. Philando Castile and Korryn Gaines were shot by police, but were blamed for their own deaths because they possessed firearms, a right that Americans defend tirelessly. Whitewashing and cultural appropriation are ubiquitous and desirable, but the human beings who brought the culture are not. The hypocrisy is unbelievable.
Although this little incident at summer camp is just a small example that didn’t amount too much besides lighting a fire under me to write this, the idea of the default white American hurts Americans of color every single day. If you still don’t think that is a problem, you are part of the problem.